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First Blacks of Portsmouth, Part 1


Published census figures for slaves and free blacks during the colonial period are known to be inaccurate and inconsistent. For instance free blacks sometimes were counted with slaves or not counted at all, and at other times they were included with whites. The number of black people reported in provincial New Hampshire was only:

  • 70 in 1707
  • 150 in 1715
  • 656 in 1775.

Most slaves and free blacks were located in and around Portsmouth. The town's slave population grew from a reported 52 in 1727 to about 4% of the total population in 1767 when 187 slaves were reported; at the time of the first federal census in 1790 only 36 slaves were counted. During this century the "mulatto" population had grown and, just as there was confusion about where to place free blacks, the census takers would have been uncertain about how to classify those who appeared white. More important is the fact that these blacks, free and slave, were struggling to survive in a changing but constantly hostile environment. Much of the reality of their lives is revealed in the discovery of their family formations and the community they made within the larger society of Portsmouth.

Personal papers and business records of many Portsmouth white slave holding families contain little, if any, information about the lives of their black servants. Nevertheless, it is possible to obtain glimpses of the master-slave relationship in some sources. For instance, a work contract between free black Cyrus Bruce and prominant merchant John Langdon does not describe Cyrus as a citizen nor does it indicate that Cyrus was married to Flora Stoodley. Cyrus contracted to work "in any sort of business" for monthly wages which would be paid half in cash and half in "goods the said Langdon may have at the general cash price."

While this is a valuable example of a post-slavery agreement between servant and master, questions remain concerning the lives of at least three generations of slaves who lived and died at the Langdon farm without such employment options. A newspaper account is suggestive:

RUNAWAY NEGRO. . .named Caesar, about 32 years of age, about five feet high; a thick set fellow; speaks good English [implying that he was not born in America] . Wore a grey homespun coat, old grey breeches & grey reward...commit him to any gaol [jail]. Samuel Langdon.

The will of merchant Daniel Rindge provided a thoughtful arrangement for the support of a former slave: As it is my intention that my former servant Romeo Freeman shall not want [for] a comfortable living I hereby encumber my whole estate with such a sum in addition to what he the said Romeo may be able to earn by his labor as will in the opinion of my executor be sufficient for that purpose.

In 1799, the executor's accounts recorded disbursements to Romeo for cash, clothes, shoes for himself and his wife, firewood, hogs, corn and finally, in 1819, expenses for his "last sickness and death." It would be comforting to believe that Romeo's lot was a typical example of the compassion Portsmouth masters held for their former slaves; yet, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. Indeed, few freed blacks received compensation for their time in bondage and few were freed upon the death of a master.

In 1691, Joanna Severett's will stated that after her death her "Negro woman" was to serve her sister "twenty years and then be free" while she gave her "two servant boys" to her brother John without conditional freedom. The will of Jacob Treadwell, tanner, specified in 1770 that his servant Caesar was to serve his wife during her lifetime, then he could be free "if he chooses it if not I give him to my son Nathanial as he has been used to his business." Treadwell's wife died first and his revised will granted freedom to Caesar "after my decease."

Most slaves were passed along through the family when a master died, as shown in the 1760 will of Nathanial Sargent, a physician, who gave Scipio to two unmarried daughters for five years then to his grandson Edward Sargent. In 1765 Richard Wibird gave his wife Elizabeth "all my Negroes, Portsmouth [the name of a male slave] who was hers before, Phillis, Sylvia and Venus." The 1768 will of Jeremiah Wheelwright, a cooper, gave Nero and Jane to Dr. Hall Jackson "in trust, and to the sole use, and for the benefit of" his daughter, Mary Cram.

Newspaper advertisements are especially interesting for the physical descriptions of runaway slaves, their skin coloring, body size and markings, temperament, and clothing. The following typically displays no sentimentality for a personal loss; it merely requests assistance in retrieving valuable property:

STOP THE RUNAWAY...from his Master William Cotton of Portsmouth, tanner, a Negro man about 5 feet 10 inches high, about 25 years of age, a stout spry fellow, upon the yellow order, a stripe upon his cheeks, left hand little finger broke off; two stripes from his navel round to his navel, had on a yellow colored pea jacket,.... Whoever will take up said Negro and convey him to his Master shall have forty five pounds reward and necessary charges paid by me.

An ad for the return of Violet, who ran away from Capt. John Donaldson, described her as "about 16 years of age, this country born, has a remarkable nub on one of her ears -- she carried considerable clothing, mostly new and good." Portsmouth Town Records rarely mention individual slaves, but an entry in 1713 states that Joseph Jackson was to be paid for the "service of his Negro at Fort William and Mary.

Of particular interest are the occasions when black people used the town records to establish the fact that they were free. Following the legal precedent set in the colony of Virginia in 1652, laws throughout the colonies provided that the status of children as slave or free would be determined by the status of the mother. Therefore, on June 10, 1760 a free mulatto woman named Leisha Webb had the town clerk record that she and the eight children belonging to her and to her husband "Negro Ceasor, a slave" were free persons. A slave named Violet bought her freedom from Abraham Dearborn on March 25, 1778; she later married Newport, the emancipated slave of Ezra Stiles, and on November 13, 1780 the couple took their freedom papers to the town clerk giving public notice that they and their infant son were free citizens.

Some free blacks bought slaves, not to own them but to free them. For example as late as 1799 a black mariner, Richard Mullenoux, purchased from William Appleton a 19 year-old woman and the couple was married one week later. The public record of one's free status was not just an act of pride; it served as an assurance against the ever-present possibility of a black person being kidnapped and sold as a captured runaway in some distance place.


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Monday, December 18, 2017 
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